Renaissance and Reformation

Around 1500, northern European knowledge of the human being expanded considerably—not only thanks to the discovery and conquest of the New World but also thanks to a reflection on the old world of antiquity. An intellectual current that would later be called humanism spread from Italy. This movement was associated with a stronger interest in reality and nature in which the human being was increasingly the focus.

Scholars, like the preacher Hermann Huddaeus depicted here, influenced the understanding of the world in the age of the Reformation and shaped the process of reordering the church and society.

Here a real human being is standing in front of a real landscape with a view of the city of Minden in Westphalia—recognizable from the church tower, the silhouette of the houses, and the course of the river.

The paper next to the skull has a Latin inscription:

Tres sunt nuntii mortis, casus, infirmitas, senectu / Aetatem queris, collige lustra decem

There are three messengers of Death: accident, sickness, old age / If you ask my age, count five times ten

The text on the ledge of the wall reads:

Ut laeti exurgunt frutices ramique virescunt / sic Euangelij voce Sarepta viget

As the shrubs rise lushly and the branches turn green, so Sarepta thrives by the voice of the Gospel

For now, a chipper hare is hopping across the field. But symbolically charged details such as the skull and the hourglass point to the inevitability of death. Is the sitter feeling his end approaching already?

New pictorial themes such as landscape and portraits of members of bourgeois society testify to the altered perception of the world and to the intense observation of nature and the human being. Within these realistic depictions, however, there are symbols that point beyond what is visible in the image.

Drawings of animals, nature and objects are no longer just a preparatory aide for artists. Increasingly, they become autonomous works: animals, plants, oddities of nature, or picturesque forms are captured in great detail and speak for themselves.

The artist reproduced the buck's fur hair by hair. One is almost tempted to touch it and feel how soft it is.

The bristly beard was executed with a broader brush.

The skillfully applied hatching, shading, and white heightening lend the antlers particular depth and the impression of three-dimensionality.

Whether a crown was composed of horn or made of gold, exotic natural objects were collected and preserved alongside artful artifacts in the new cabinets of art and curiosities.

The era of humanism was the hour of birth of these "Wunderkammern" (cabinets of wonder): princely collections that are in a sense the precursors to our museums today.

One famous collector of the period around 1500 was Frederick the Wise, whose abundance of extraordinary objects can still be admired today in the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) in Dresden. One typical example of Frederick’s passion for collecting and enthusiasm for precious materials and exotic natural objects is this “turban snail goblet.”

The goblet is captivating thanks to its many cast elements, such as the subtly designed figures ...

… and the etched vegetal ornaments on the lip.

This greatly admired artisanship is countered with the most astonishing perfection of nature as a beautifully formed, shimmering snail shell.

All spheres of the world were examined precisely. Impressive details are found both in filigreed decorations as well as in bombastic turmoil.

Large battles and other events of classical antiquity were a popular pictorial subject north of the Alps as well. The depiction of the past commented on current political events. Melchior Feselen’s painting, for example, which shows Caesar’s victory over the Gauls by the conquest of the city of Alesia in 52 BCE, is full of references that link the historical event to contemporaneous events.

Many of the soldiers are wearing sixteenth-century garb and working with military equipment that was unknown to antiquity.

Feselen’s “Romans” are fighting under a banner with the eagle of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the ranks of the “Gauls” stand men with Oriental turbans …

… on their flags the lilies of the French royal coat of arms are visible.

The opponents of the Holy Roman Empire in the sixteenth century are thus named directly and the Roman empire claimed as an ancestor.

Credits: Story

Online Curation: Nadine Söll, Jutta Dette
Text / Editing: Jutta Dette, Astrid Alexander

Based on: Renaissance and Reformation - German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach, Nov 20, 2016–March 26, 2017, A Cooperation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen München, Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Munich: Prestel, 2016.

© This exhibition was made possible by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen München, and made possible by the Federal Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany. Additional support is provided by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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